Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1060
Paul Simon's long and manicky struggle between his songs of endearing but forced whimsy and his confessions of unhappiness and loneliness is over, with the latter, in fully-developed form, the victor. Simon's first solo album [Paul Simon] is also his least detached, most personal and painful piece of work thus far—this from a lyricist who has never shied away from pain as subject or theme….
Simon maintains his artistic distance as he evinces a continuing commitment to art as something at least one step removed from the artist. Simon's music, rather than abounding in blatant and obvious attempts at expressing the soul, serves as a continually ironic counterpoint to the emotions, ideas, images, and feelings expressed by the lyrics…. [In Simon's work the listener] remains on the outside and by Simon's lights, intentionally so, as he forces us to look at them without ever forcing us to identify.
On Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Simon offered "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her," the fantasy image of a perfect love that could save him from emptiness and despair. At the end of Paul Simon … we are offered "Congratulations," an eloquent, direct simple song which says: "I'm hungry for learning / Won't you answer me please / Can a man and a woman / Live together in peace."
On Paul Simon there is no more a dream of Emily but only the question: could such a thing exist and if so, why hasn't the song's composer found it?… Simon keeps looking back at his shattered illusions only to return to the present with a question that can't be answered in the affirmative—for if it could, there would be no need to ask it.
Paul Simon leaves its composer's psyche finally exposed, as the various veneers he has used in the past to protect himself have receded into the background. The notion of pain, loss, despair, instability and self-destruction that recur endlessly on this album are matched in imagery with the constant reference to the self as a boy, with its implication that with all the growing Simon has done, it hasn't been enough….
At a more general level, the formal basis of Simon's compositions has changed drastically. In the past he varied his approach between vignette songs ("Richard Cory" and "Poem on the Underground Wall"), songs of fantasy and philosophy ("Sounds of Silence" and "El Condor Pasa"), songs of an explicitly personal or confessional nature ("I Am a Rock" and "Fakin' It"), and whimsical songs ("The 59th Street Bridge Song" and "Baby Driver"). On the new album there is less variety than ever before, and even when Simon uses non-confessional forms the confessional intent behind them is more transparent than ever.
For example, "Duncan," an expertly rendered vignette, is similar in pace, mood, and even points to the earlier "Boxer," but its autobiographical content—from an emotional point of view—is far more explicit than the earlier work, both in the song itself and in its very direct and simple production. Similarly, the enjoyable whimsy of "Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard" seems almost deliberately a flatter kind of whimsy than Simon has done in the past. While the song has some funny moments, there is none of that straining for comic effect that occasionally marred earlier such efforts.
More importantly, Simon's earlier philosophical concern with society as an entity unto itself is now dealt with in two songs whose main point seems to be that involvement inevitably explodes back into one's face forcing one to rethink and refeel his problems as an individual. Specifically "Armistice Day" announces in typically understated fashion that Simon is "weary from waiting in Washington D.C." and that "I've waited about all I can." In the song's last line he announces that his patience is exhausted, and the singer leaves….
It is finally in this album's bookends, "Mother and Child Reunion" and "Congratulations," that Simon achieves his only but inevitably complete statements about the feelings he is so on edge about. "Mother and Child Reunion" is the album's best piece of music, sung exquisitely by what sounds like a genuinely liberated Paul Simon to the incredibly energetic accompaniment of a reggae band. The song, about the death of a mother, defines instantly the sense of loss and the ultimate recognition that the only thing now separating the mother and child is death, even while the song acknowledges the need to continue living a life that now more than ever is incapable of sustaining false hopes.
At the other end of the album, Simon signs off with a more melancholy statement of the same. As his voice waxes explicitly soulful, running through the notes of one of his simplest and best melodies, he defines his own meaning of love, and then wonders if it does exist, answering almost implicitly that at this space and time for him it doesn't….
Paul Simon, as an album, is not a particularly enjoyable piece of work, in a very real sense, it wasn't intended to be. It is a piece of self-expression designed to communicate some very unpleasant but very real truths about the artist and those who can hear him for what he has to say. Thus, the album poses a challenge for rock as an idiom. For any real art form allows for the possibility of difficult works—works that are not immediately or even ultimately pleasurable except in so far as we can appreciate them for the truth they reveal.
In a popular art form, where the emphasis always remains on entertainment first, how much patience will an audience show in dealing with a work that no matter how pleasurable it is in some of its individual parts, is depressing in the extreme as a whole. For there is nothing to escape with on this record and only a cut or two that anyone could conceivably dance to. Simon is using rock to deal with different kinds of feelings in different kinds of ways. The response to this record will thus be at least in part as much a measure of the audience as the artist. For by any objective criteria, this artist has done his work: to reveal the truth.
Jon Landau, "Paul Simon: Everything Put Together Falls Apart," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 103, March 2, 1972, p. 56.
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